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British Museum: Ethiopian Sacred Altar Tablets

Volume 820: debated on Wednesday 30 March 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with (1) the British Museum, and (2) the government of Ethiopia, regarding the return to that country of 11 sacred altar tablets held by the British Museum.

My Lords, the British Museum operates independently of government, meaning that decisions relating to the care and management of its collections, including these tablets, are a matter for its trustees. The museum has said that it recognises the significance of the tablets and has held meaningful talks with the Ethiopian Church on this issue. The museum’s stated ambition is to seek to lend these objects to an Ethiopian Orthodox Church in the UK. The Government fully support the trustees. We have had no recent discussions with the Government of Ethiopia on this matter. We are gravely concerned by the current conflict in Ethiopia, and have called for all sides to begin peace talks and to facilitate humanitarian access.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his guarded reply. The issue for me is respecting another nation’s culture and religious values. In the light of the fact that the tabots entered the collection of the British Museum after British troops led by Lord Napier in 1868 looted them, following the Battle of Maqdala, would not he agree that Her Majesty’s Government bear some basic moral responsibility? As that is surely the case, would the Government give some words of encouragement—and I believe that they have implied something—to the trustees of the British Museum to do the right thing and return the tabots to Ethiopia?

My Lords, the noble and right reverend Lord alludes to the complexity of this case, and the 150 year-old matter that it concerns. The expedition to which he refers was, of course, to free hostages who have been taken, including an Anglican missionary whose two servants had been beaten to death by Emperor Tewodros II. But the main issue is the way in which these items are now cared for by the British Museum—and he is absolutely right to point to their religious significance. The tablets are housed in a special location which is maintained in consultation with the Ethiopian Church; they are well looked after by a committed curatorial and conservation team and available to be visited only by Ethiopian Orthodox priests. As I say, the museum has had constructive conversations with the Ethiopian Church on this, and would welcome further discussions.

My Lords, apart from the way in which these artefacts were obtained, and the responsibility of the British Museum and its independence, I wonder whether the Minister would agree that what sets these artefacts apart, as he has intimated, from any others in the British Museum and other museums across our land, is that they are sacred. As such, they relate to a living faith—the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Whereas these tabots mean very little to anyone here except as stones of limited historical value, and no one is able to see them anyway, they are of profound religious significance in Ethiopia. Would not the Minister agree that they should therefore be returned to those who understand them to be holy and will cherish them as such?

The right reverend Prelate is right that these items remain of enduring importance to people, and the British Museum is very sensitively discussing those matters with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, so that those sensitivities can be understood and reflected and so that the future of the items can be discussed appropriately. The past may be distant, but it remains around us, and the issues of sensitivity and importance are of course considered very carefully by the British Museum and all other cultural institutions.

My Lords, as a former trustee of the British Museum, may I ask my noble friend the Minister whether he agrees with me that, more generally, museums have a responsibility to be clear about the provenance of contested objects and that the British Museum’s website provides a model of openness and transparency for museums globally on how to deal with, and explain the provenance of, such objects?

I completely agree with my noble friend, and am grateful to him for alluding to the British Museum’s work in this area. The pages on its website that explain both these items and, more generally, the museum’s approach to issues of restitution and contested heritage, are a model of transparency. They set out the facts very clearly so that people can understand the past and make their own decisions—and also so that they can understand the claims for restitution that have been made to the museum, and how the museum is dealing with them.

My Lords, while I appreciate that there are some legal complexities surrounding the return of the sacred tabots to Ethiopia, these highly significant religious artefacts have resided unseen in the British Museum’s stores for the best part of 150 years. As I understand it, not even students, researchers or historians are able to view them. This cannot be right. Can the Minister give some comfort to Ethiopia by encouraging the trustees of the British Museum to find a solution that satisfies curatorial concerns and the understandable desire from Ethiopia for them to be returned to their rightful home?

The noble Lord touches on the core sensitivity of the matter. Some of these items are considered so sacred and holy that they can be looked at only by Ethiopian Orthodox priests, which would be the case in Ethiopia as in London. That is why the British Museum is in discussion with the Church. There are other items, however, from Maqdala that can be found in the museum’s public galleries or changing displays. Together and individually, they demonstrate some of the great artistic traditions of Ethiopia, showing the breadth and explaining the diversity of the religious traditions in that country, including Christianity, Islam, Judaism and many other faiths.

My Lords, we have time. It is the turn of the Liberal Democrats and then the Labour Benches—if they could work out which one of them is going to stand up.

My Lords, recognising that only a handful of priests of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church live in the UK, that not even the director of the British Museum can view them and that there is, in this case, no legal impediment, would it not help the trustees of the British Museum to come to the right decision if the Government indicated their support for the return of the tabots to Ethiopia? If the Minister agrees, would he instruct the trustees of that view?

My Lords, the museum is independent of the Government; it is up to the trustees. The Government support the trustees in their earnest work and the discussions they are having on these sensitive issues with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and others.

My Lords, these items, which are of huge religious significance, were looted. They were stolen after a brutal, punitive expedition—that is the reality. Given that reality and given the fact that they are not able to be seen, venerated or studied by anybody, would it not be the right thing to do—the moral thing to do—and would it not enhance the moral position of the trustees and the British Government in their discussions with the Ethiopian Government about human rights, if they were to be returned without delay?

My Lords, the items have a complicated provenance. They were indeed taken by British troops after the expedition, but some of the items in the collection were themselves stolen by Tewodros II to assemble the collection in the first place. Some of the items have been given back, including by Her Majesty the Queen in 1965 to Emperor Haile Selassie. The British Museum is looking at the complexity of this issue, talking sensitively to the Ethiopian Church and others to decide the best way of caring for them and reflecting that complex past.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a trustee of the Museum of the Home. Museums across Ukraine are desperately trying to save internationally important works of art from being looted by invading Russian forces. Can the Minister tell the House what the Government are doing to help them?

My Lords, I had the pleasure of addressing the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the United Nations yesterday where there was a special parliamentary briefing from UNESCO on this important matter. The Government are providing initial funding through the Prince Claus Fund to help with the preservation of cultural objects in Ukraine.

My Lords, may I say to my noble friend that I fully understand his difficulties with this matter. It is a complex matter, as it is with many countries and these arguments about artefacts. Can I ask him whether he has ever had any discussions with his Danish opposite number about the large amount of Anglo-Saxon silver that is held by Danish institutions—more than is held by English institutions? What is the prospect of having these artefacts returned to this country?

I am grateful to my noble friend. I have had no such discussions with my Danish counterpart, but my noble friend’s question does allude to the complexities of these issues. There are sensitivities that remain very present, on which museums and cultural organisations do such important work in helping us to understand in their fullness, but we must always come to terms with the past and draw our own conclusions.